It happens a lot. I watch someone, often a woman, absolutely nail a presentation by doing something a bit different from the norm, something that really works for her. Immediately afterward, the speaker is besieged by people (often women) doing one of two things: either hawking business or offering correction, to restore their own comfort.
I’ve seen this so often that I, too, now flock to the front of the room after a woman finishes speaking. I do this so that I can observe the group behavior and offer something more helpful than crushing criticism.
Here are some examples of what I see and hear, followed by a suggested hack on how to deal with it. Remember: An unsolicited opinion is none of your business, unless it’s one that makes you better.
One woman was the first to reach a speaker who had just stepped off the stage. “Hey, I just want to be helpful” she began. “Good presentation, but you should not wear sleeveless dresses. When you raise your arm I can see your arm flap.” This woman, we soon learned, was a personal trainer.
At another event, I watched a woman speak about the origin of her company. She told a powerful story without going super deep, emotionally, because this style was both comfortable for her and contextually appropriate.
After she finished, a woman approached and said “You need to go deep. You have to have more emotion attached to your presentation.” Then she passed the speaker a business card and said “I teach storytelling.”
Do not hire someone who chums for business after your presentation. Their advice does not come from a sincere or solid place. There’s something missing, and amiss, with someone who would knock you down a peg in order to create potential earnings. Don’t let it mess with you. Don’t let it get in.
Instead, get your feedback from trusted folks whom you ask to help you. Their feedback will be more pure.
Self Comfort Through Correction
About 15 years ago, I shared my #metoo story in a room full of women. We had no hashtag for it back then, and I shared my story because another woman had shared hers: I did not want her to be alone. I wanted every woman there to know we were in a place in which we could talk about this.
I was absolutely shaking when I finished, flooded with adrenaline. The woman who organized the event took me into a side room and read me the riot act. “You were not hired to do this!” she said. “You could have triggered someone. That was inappropriate. It makes us look like we don’t know what we’re doing.” She “felt so uncomfortable the whole time.” I felt compassion for the pain my story created for her. It also took me more than a year to deal with her reaction, which made me question my openness about my #metoo experiences.
Many of us are not comfortable with discomfort. When some folks feel uncomfortable, they get corrective. “Can I give you some feedback?” can be code for “I am uncomfortable, and I don’t like the fact that your story made me uncomfortable.” The more honest and real your presentation, the more likely this is to happen.
Unsolicited advice is often based on fragility. People listen to your story, experience some discomfort, and then soothe themselves by taking it out on you, literally. Other folks issue corrections in an attempt to gain power or superiority over you, the speaker, and your voice.
Be careful who you listen to. Advice after a presentation often is not genuine, and correction usually does not make us better.
You may be thinking, “Hey, I give feedback to make people better.” That may be your intention, yet unsolicited feedback is rarely helpful or clear enough to create behavior change. If someone asks you for feedback, okay, cool, that’s different. If we truly want people to get better at public speaking, we have to understand and work with the biochemistry involved in it: adrenaline, dopamine.
What did you do right?
This is one, small practice that can transform the outcomes of your presentations. To improve your speaking behavior, answer this question immediately afterward: “What did I just do great that I want to repeat?”
Build on what you did well with dopamine, because that makes you better. Correction does not. Notice, for example, what made the audience listen, connect, nod, perk up, or smile, and do more of that next time. Recall the things you said that got reactions from your listeners, and write them down. You can recollect and note so much “did it right” data that will make the next presentation better.
Why does this work? Because it shows that audiences forgive tiny missteps when your strong points make them feel something. And, over time, it makes you realize that perfect, isn’t. Stories too perfectly and artfully told aren’t messy enough to be believed and can feel fake.
When you’re in an audience, go up and tell the speaker one specific thing you liked about their presentation. That person crawled on their belly across glass to be able to get up and share their story, and we all want to know that our stories matter. Tell them just one thing you liked.
I am so grateful for anyone who believes in something so deeply that they are willing to stand on a stage and give to an audience. You make our world a better place. Thank you.
Your turn. What did you do right in your last presentation? What should you repeat?